You can chalk this post up to One.Too.Many. “Life Hack” links pinging my social media accounts.
We are bombarded daily with ads and articles promising that with a quick click, new ideas, new products, and new shortcuts will simplify our lives. It is tempting. After all, isn’t there an instinctive pull inside of each of us to take the path of least resistance and do what is easy?
But the culture behind Life Hacks stands in stark contrast to most of my life. I practice water law in the middle of a thousand year drought event, and I promise you there are no legal or scientific shortcuts out of this one. I am training for the New York City Marathon (see no shortcuts comment, above). I am a mom (self-explanatory).
Which got me thinking about the intrinsic value of hard work and figuring things out the long way, and why it is still important.
When I was a senior in college, I was juggling a History major and English minor. I read. A lot. Books by the dozen over the course of a semester were the norm, so when the opportunity presented itself to take a class that only had two (2!) books on the syllabus and fifteen weeks to read them, I took it. This was going to be my easy class, my break – a little light reading over the course of the semester equaled downtime in my schedule.
I did not bother to look into the two novels we were assigned before I registered for the class. That was a mistake.
The first novel was Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, a three volume, roughly 3200 page tome. The second book was Ulysses written by James Joyce. It is not an exaggeration to say that I had never before, and have never in the twenty-five years since, read anything more challenging or more nuanced than these two novels. The writing is complex, bordering sometimes on incomprehensible. The class landed me exactly where I deserved to be: stuck in the library.
It also was the semester that I was introduced to the following passage. It perfectly fit the academic struggles that year, and has served as a guidepost ever since:
I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done – but I like what is in work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.
(Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness)
The irony is not lost on me that I found this quote, one that explains whatever internal drive I have, only because I signed up for that English class looking for an excuse to be lazy.
That course stretched my mind, challenged my capabilities, and taught me to value the process more than just the end result. In that work and in that study I found inspiration. I also found me, and a breakthrough understanding of the satisfaction that comes from working through the impossible and coming out better for it on the other side.
I recognize that the pursuit of higher education and knowledge could as easily be categorized under “luxury”, and the term “hard work” does not even begin to describe the labor and the struggles facing so many people today. But as a whole, it seems that our society has shifted toward expediency, instant gratification, and simple life hacks. I am as guilty of it as the next guy.
My point is simply this: Sometimes the harder path is the most rewarding. Sometimes you have to learn everything there is about a subject and still have to come up with the answer to a problem yourself. Sometimes you have to make bread from scratch or grow your food from a garden in order to appreciate their value. Sometimes you have to read newspapers of substance and works of non-fiction rather than simply listen to a 30-second cable news clip to understand the world and politics around you.
Sometimes you have to train for a marathon just to discover what you are made of …
… if only to find your own answers. For yourself.